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by Anne Berleant
Castine was chosen by the Maine Downtown Center—a program of the Maine Development Foundation—as a Downtown Network Community in May of 2011 to receive resources and help in revitalizing its downtown area.
But what exactly is a Downtown Network Community? And how does this designation help community and economic development?
Or, as consultant Sue Walsh asked, “What reason can we give people to come downtown?”
It was the drive toward economic revitalization that spurred the town’s 2011 application to the Downtown Network program under the auspices of the Economic Development Committee.
That committee is now called Castine Community and Economic Development, and works hand-in-glove with Walsh, hired by the town to rev its economic engine.
“Castine is not perceived as an open and friendly business community. My challenge and the CED’s is to change that perception,” Walsh said in a recent telephone interview.
The summary report issued by the MDC after touring Castine in July held no surprises, said Walsh.
“The good news was that a lot of the things they suggested were things we had already started doing or were on our radar.”
One example is Light Up Castine, which shines a light—literally and figuratively— on the downtown commercial area during the holiday season. This is the kind of signature event that the MDC report suggests.
The report also emphasizes economic growth within the context of historic preservation—not just for Castine, but in its general guidelines, some of which are taken from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center.
“You can’t talk about Castine without talking about historic architecture,” said Walsh. “It’s part of the fabric and core of what Castine is.”
Yet, preserving the historic character and buildings of downtown Castine does not stall economic opportunities, Walsh said.
“I think where the balance can be struck is in not always thinking of some of these historic homes as residences forever and ever.”
She sees a potential for buildings in the commercial district to house research and development firms, or physician or other wellness provider offices.
“To be open minded to those possibilities is what could create some growth and still preserve [Castine’s] historic character,” Walsh said. “And there might be some lights on in the middle of January.”
Specific steps that Walsh and the CED are undertaking are creating surveys directed toward Maine Maritime Academy population, tourists and year-round and seasonal residents, another suggestion of the MDC report.
But the most important project, Walsh said, is creating a new town website that incorporates municipal information with that for tourists, businesses and potential new residents.
“That is a huge project that needs to happen before a lot of other things happen,” said Walsh. Those “other things” are cooperative advertising in places like Down East magazine to market Castine as a destination for conferences, weddings and boat tourism, she said.
“Everybody wants a website to go to for more information,” Walsh said. The new website will provide municipal information along with information for tourists, potential residents and businesses. The deadline for submitting proposals is November 16.
The importance of the design of the downtown area is another highlight of the MDC report, which specifically calls attention to “large portions” of walkways that are dangerous and impassable to those with limited mobility and for more benches and places to stop and rest.
The downtown infrastructure project currently in its post-design phase is an opportunity, said Walsh, for the downtown streetscape “to match the historic aesthetic of Castine.”
Like the larger picture of the push toward revitalization, Walsh said, “It’s one step at a time.”